As a mental health professional, how do you deal with a struggling family member? Mental health student nurse Leanne describes her experience
Today, the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) launched the Going To Be campaign that raises awareness about the number of children affected by mental health problems and how lack of support impacts their goals, dreams and ambitions for the future.
As I follow the launch, exploring the literature and tweeting details of the campaign, I think of my own daughter and her recent experience with anxiety. At the age of seven, she already reminds me very much of myself. Strong willed, bold, determined… and more than a little bit sensitive.
As an adult, I see how advantageous that aspect of my character can be and have developed the skills to navigate stressful situations effectively over the years. As a child still developing those skills, and with much to learn, it is easy to see why there might be times that life can appear both confusing and overwhelming.
And yet - when the little girl I had watched skip happily into school every single day, without so much as a backward glance, suddenly clung to my arm and cried in the middle of the playground - my own experience and ability to rationalise seemed to suddenly disappear. As the situation continued, I projected confidence; if only for her. Inwardly, I was filled with criticism.
How could something like this have happened? Had I failed her somehow? I had all the concerns any parent might have, but layered on top was the niggling self doubt of someone training to be a mental health nurse: What kind of a mental health nurse could I be, if I wasn’t able to help those closest to me?
As I turned this over in my mind, other thoughts began to surface. Given that one in four people is likely to experience a mental health disorder over the course of one’s lifetime, it must be fairly common for those working within the profession to be close to someone affected. In fact, ethics and best practice would dictate that mental health professionals should not be professionally involved in the recovery process of family members due to what is widely recognised as compromised objectivity.
It was this final detail that struck me the most. I was lacking objectivity; far too clouded by our close relationship and emotional involvement.
Ultimately, my daughter has been very fortunate. She attends a fantastic school, with staff who consistently went out of their way to ensure that a common source of anxiety amongst young school children was managed effectively, before it developed into something more. Crucially, she was given the guidance to find her own strength as she learned to walk uncharted territory; a skill she will hopefully take with her as she navigates her journey towards adulthood.
The foundations of good mental health, I have learned, don’t necessarily mean never encountering a struggle; but the employment of prompt support and guidance to develop life-long navigational skills.
Concern for loved ones can sometimes manifest as a sense of responsibility to relieve their distress. Mental health professionals are no more immune to clouded objectivity when faced with a struggling family member than anyone else.
Just as in nursing practice, however, it is important to recognise the role of the individual in managing one’s own situation. Whatever their age, be it seven or 70, and whatever your relationship; people affected by mental illness are significantly more likely to experience a positive outcome if they are supported to be confident and independent, rather than passive recipients of even the best-intentioned care.
Leanne Patrick is currently in her first year studying mental health nursing at the University of Stirling